Debbie Friedman: Singing Unto God

A Jewish musical phenomenon

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The records sell via mail order, Judaica shops, concerts, and, lately, record stores. Her presence in the mainstream presents an interesting problem. At music stores, she might be found in "ethnic," "folk," "female vocalists," or in some other classification that doesn't quite fit. Debbie Friedman seems to be a category unto herself.

Her music draws from many sources, ranging from Judy Collins to the late Qwaali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Anything her ear processes could turn into a melodic idea for a song. "What I do is respond to text," she says. "A rabbi friend of mine calls my music musical midrash." [A midrash is a creative analysis of text, often through storytelling or parable.] "It's an interesting way to look at what I do."

On the bookshelves of Debbie's apartment, well-worn volumes of Midrash and Talmud share space with volumes on contemporary Jewish thought. "They are essential in my grasping what these prayers are about," she says. "In the text that I'm working on at the moment, one particular phrase goes over and over in my head. I write about what comes to my mind in relationship to these words, lyrically and musically." When setting Hebrew text to music, she finds the language so musical it practically writes itself "Hebrew has its own internal, passionate music."

Most of her songs are created for specific people and occasions. Her frequently performed "Mi Sheberach," for example, was composed for a Simchat Chochma (celebration of wisdom) ceremony honoring a woman friend on her 60th birthday. "My friend was having a very difficult time in her life, and a number of her friends were also struggling," Debbie explains. "Yet she had arrived at this age and she was determined to embrace it. 'Mi Sheberach' spoke to that." Introduced to the Reform Movement at the UAHC San Francisco Biennial in 1993, Debbie's "Mi Sheberach" has since become the fastest adopted liturgical melody in the Reform and Conservative Movements.

Since 1988, Debbie has been struggling with a neurological condition that has necessitated occasional periods of inactivity. She approaches her illness with positive resolve. "Every one of us has to confront challenges," she says. "If we don't, we're missing out on a whole dimension of our lives. If we choose to numb out and not experience what's around us, well, that would be a pretty horrid way to live."

Debbie derives strength by tapping into the healing power of communal prayer. "Being in a community helps people deal with their pain," Debbie says. "Oftentimes, when we're ill or depressed we feel spiritually wounded. We withdraw, we isolate, and we leave ourselves out in the cold. During healing services, individuals-sometimes hundreds of people-stand together; share time, song, and prayer; and acknowledge that we're grieving, we're in pain, and we're in solidarity. We're not seeking miracles, we're not casting away our crutches-we're finding a way to deal with the fact that we might not be able to put them down. We literally take the readings and music into our bodies to sustain us through the trauma. So much singing and spirit come from the pain."

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Hank Bordowitz

Hank Bordowitz, corresponding secretary of the Reform Temple of Suffern, N.Y., is the author of Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival.